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A Tale From the Field: Pythons in the Park

16 Dec

From 3/2007

Every good snake catching trip starts with a snack stop. Usually this comes in the form of a hot dog and a Mountain Dew at a gas station; but this time we aimed a little higher on the food-quality scale.

The university that I attend has a gem of a field class called “Natural History of the Everglades Watershed,” taught by the hippest teacher at our school: Dr. Tom Chesnes. Being field based, the course culminates with a weekend of fun, grilling, camping and learning in Everglades National Park (ENP). So, there we were, a class of undergrad Biology majors ready for a late winter weekend in ‘The Park,’ but badly needing nourishment prior to our entry into the park. Enter ‘Robert Is Here,’ Fresh fruit stand, and home to some of the best, freshest, home-grown milkshakes (…milkshakes, not Milksnakes, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here) in the free world. I indulged in a Passion Fruit milkshake whilst others enjoyed mango, papaya, and other tasty blends. Consequently, this was the same fruit stand where a friend of mine had indulged in two Sugar cane milkshakes the year before – proving that it IS possible to have too much of a good thing. Regardless, with our stomachs satiated, we set our mind to the weekend at hand. Our agenda during the trip included hiking throughout ENP’s main plant communities, a night-hike (because the Everglades at night can be a scary yet awesome place), and an ample amount of free time, which I planned to use to road-cruise for snakes.

During the class, the topic of invasive species came up frequently, and with it came the topic of the Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus.) Burmese Pythons, a subspecies of the Indian Python which in their home range have exceeded twenty feet in length, have established themselves and are breeding; somewhat explosively, in southern Florida. Burms (A name affectionately imposed on the Burmese Python) have been the subject of much debate and study in the past couple of years due to a number of factors, nevertheless it is generally thought that they were introduced to southern Florida as a byproduct of the pet trade – either released by owners, escaped from reptile wholesalers, or intentionally ‘seeded’ by reptile dealers hoping to make a profit off their future offspring. The class, which besides me consisted entirely of non-reptile enthusiasts, was awestruck at the concept and wanted to see a wild python for themselves.

It was well past mid-day by the time we entered the park, and except for one stop to gawk at the tourists who were gawking at the sunbathing American Alligators (Alligator mississipiensis) we went directly to our camping spot at the Flamingo Campground – the southernmost campground on the peninsula, and genesis of the python infestation. I quickly set up my tent and received leave from the professor to hit the road again. Just as the sun was disappearing behind the horizon to my left, I was flying down the park road at about 45 MPH. I had hit the road a bit later than I wanted to, but my hopes were still high – at the very least, I thought I’ll have to bat the Cottonmouths off with a stick, thinking of the usual high frequency of Florida Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) in the Everglades. I drove. And I drove some more. Temperatures were sinking low, but still nothing. Until, out of the haze of my burning eyes and the darkness of the night came a small, seemingly banded snake. Despite its appearance to a Florida Kingsnake, I knew from other’s stories and past experience that it was in fact a hatchling Burmese Python. I slammed on the breaks and pulled my car over, trying to remember my caution flashers as I ran back to where I saw the snake. I scanned left with my mag-light. Nothing. Right. Nothing. I scanned the grass off to the side of the road. No snakes. So, I got back in my car, and decided based on over an hour of fruitless road cruising that it was time to recoup and get some dinner.

The next morning we groggily awoke for a morning boat trip in the mangroves. One of the most impressive of Florida’s herp species is the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), a species that we had a good chance of seeing. We boarded the boat and were off into the labyrinth of trails through the mangroves on Florida’s coast. The tour guide was mostly well informed (except for telling us that the American Crocodile is the world’s largest Crocodile) and the first couple of minutes were relaxing as I zoned out the droning of basic Everglades trivia and kept my eye on the water. I was the first one to see it: rippling muscles covered by a olive-colored armor – the awe inspiring American Croc. I leaned forward and watched happily as the rest of the boat caught on to the impressive animal. He was well over ten feet, basking on an embankment, and seemed lazily-tolerant of us until the boat inched closer – then it gently slid into the water with great finesse and disappeared. This first glimpse of the American Croc was fleeting; but it was not our last. We saw 6 more crocodiles as we meandered in and out of the mangroves, stopping at each one to be awestruck at their sight. As we continued on, the tour guide broke out a folder of images he was trying to sell. Being a photographer myself, I browsed the images with waning interest. Until I came across a very interesting image: An American Alligator with a Python in its jaws. I prodded the tour guide for information, but unfortunately, all I got was a bunch of dramatic rambling, talk of ‘giant 20 foot pythons taking over the Florida Everglades.’ We pulled back in to the dock and readied ourselves for an evening hike.

The Everglades come alive at night – the oppressively bright, hot, quiet day yields a warm, mosquito-filled night filled with the calls of pig frogs, cricket frogs, tree frogs and their ilk – the only thing marring the ambiance being the orange glow of Homestead and Miami. The class stood at the very tip of peninsular Florida, in quiet awe of the starscape that lay before us (It was at this point that Dr. Chesnes jokingly explained to us that the Earth stood at the center of the universe and all the heavens circled around it.) Overlooking Florida bay is one of the few places in the US where one can see the Southern Cross just peaking over the horizon, and that night it shone beautifully above the subtropical waves. We departed.

We entered one of the denser of Everglades tree canopies, one that butted right up against the mangroves and had a nice, enclosed path weaving through it. Being as enclosed as it was, our quiet hike was interrupted several times by a classmate’s close encounter with a spider web – and investigating these webs gave us a good smattering of south Florida’s spider species, with the strikingly beautiful Crab Spider being the most prevalent of the night. In the back of my mind, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a Scarlet Snake (Cemephora coccinaea) which I’d seen in similar situations in the past, so I kept my flashlight beam trained on the ground periodically for the small, fossorial species.

It is very interesting at times the relics that can be found inside a National Park: We came across a small wooden boat nestled among mangrove fingers that had long since lost its seaworthiness and had badly rotted. I vainly attempted to roll it over to check whether any snake called its underbelly home – to no avail. A short time afterwards I came upon another relic: a marker of some sort bearing the stamp of the US Coastal and Geodetic Service, and a date of the early 1920s – an era when the swamps and wetlands we were now enjoying were seen as the grievous enemy of progress, an enemy to be drained and paved over. No Scarlet Snakes, or snakes of any other kind for that matter, were found that night, but fortunately that only built the anticipation for the final night of our trip, a night of roadcruising for me, and hopefully, a chance encounter with one big snake.

Our final day began as the previous night ended: with hiking. We began in the northern reaches of ENP to hike at the popular Anhinga Trail, a place clogged with a peculiar concoction of tourists and Alligators. Nearby we examined a hardwood hammock, with the coolest (literally) trees in Florida – Gumbo Limbos, which can maintain a temperature of a few degrees cooler than their surroundings. Gumbo Limbos are often called tourist trees due to their red and peeling appearance. We continued south and hiked through Pa-Hay-Okee Trail, a beautiful tree Island where the most famous Everglades Python stories came from – the often sensationalized story of an American Alligator being eaten by a Python… which then burst wide open. The day continued on with more hiking in Florida’s grueling March heat, and we passed through Rock Reef Pass, which bears a sign stating its name and elevation: Three Feet.

When we were exhausted and hot, we returned to the camp site and I readied myself to roadcruise. A curiosity of my snake-hunting ways had spread amongst the class, and that night I had a car full of college students joining me for my search. We embarked an hour before the sunset and drove the main park road. Just as the sun went down, at the twilight hour when visual acuity suffers, I saw something in the road. I slammed on the breaks. My co-searchers had been bored at this point and had just settled comfortably into their chairs. They were not expecting such an abrupt stop and found themselves bucked forward – which they did not appreciate.

Regardless, I pulled the car over, and ran at the top of my adrenaline-enabled speed to the snake. There it sat, spooked by my passing, curled up into a tight S with mouth wide open: The Florida Cottonmouth. I offered a few words to my classmates about the species – touching on the fact that they are not as aggressive as they are hyped-up to be, and stressing that not every snake that one sees is a Cottonmouth. The awe and lesson over, we continued. The next snake we stopped for was a Florida Banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata). I demonstrated how close these snakes can look to a Cottonmouth, and how to tell them apart, then left the little serpent on his way. Then came the highlight of the cruise: A Miami phase Cornsnake (Elaphe guttata). 2007 had been what many South Florida Herpers called “The Year Of The Cornsnake” because nights with 3 or 4 Cornsnakes – a high amount, usually – were commonplace, and they seemed to not be effected at all by the record drought that South Florida was then experiencing. The group enjoyed the placid little snake’s vibrant orange and red colors, but we did not see another snake for quite a while, and they degraded into boredom and typical post-pubescent college guy talk, as I kept my eyes peeled.

Four and a half hours after our departure, we slid back into the parking spot by our campsite, and began making dinner. It was grilled chicken, and I sat munching on it, disappointed at the lack of pythons during the trip. As I sat Dr. Chesnes came up to me and said:

“Well, I suppose I should see what this herping thing is all about. What do you say we cruise the roads for 15 minutes or so?”

I told him that it was late and the road temperatures had likely dropped to the same level as the surround air and that it would be unlikely to see snakes lying on the road to increase their body temperature, but he still was interested, so him, a classmate named Patrick, and I disembarked. We drove north, seeing along the way only one dead-on-road Salt Marsh Snake (Nerodia clarkii). After 10 or so miles of fruitless searching we decided to turn back towards the campsite. We turned and a half a mile of dark, ENP pavement fled underneath us and exhaustion overcame us – Until, that is, as we drove, we saw something that may well have been a tree limb stretching across the road. I slowed the car to a crawl as we all gaped in wonder at what lay before us.

“That’ll be what we’re looking for,” said Dr. Chesnes. It was indeed: the Burmese Python, all eight and a half feet of him. I got out of the car, the shock finally fading and the adrenaline taking its place. The python began meandering off the road, not looking terribly concerned until it saw me advancing on it – I bound upon it and grabbed its tail, a fact which it did not enjoy. As quickly as I grabbed it, I saw a wide open mouth of curved teeth bearing down on me. I momentarily (and understandably) dropped the tail, only to grab it several more times until Patrick came running and handed me my snake hook. (Usually having snake hooks or touching any wildlife, Pythons included, in a national park is illegal, but I had obtained the necessary research permit prior to my trip there.) I pinned the python’s head, and hoisted the body over my shoulder. There it was, in my grip, one of the most awe inspiring snakes in the world.

We bagged the python and returned to the campsite, showing off our catch to the rest of our group, and discussing the implications of such invasive species to the Florida ecosystem. Then, tired from a long weekend of searching, I walked towards my tent noticing a plate full of left over grilled chicken which I assumed that one of the others in our group would pick up before retiring. When I arose the next morning, I realized that the chicken was still there: every piece had survived the night in the middle of a packed campground. It was not until later that it clicked for me: How did the chicken survive the night? Had I ever camped in Florida or anywhere else where food left out was not immediately taken by raccoons in the middle of the night? Where were those Raccoons? Somehow I had a feeling that the answer to this question was intertwined in the coils of the majestic, wonderful, yet explosively breeding and detrimental species which I had found that weekend.

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Posted by on 16/12/2011 in Tales From the Field

 

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